Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
This deliciously wonky interactive map is a reminder for midterm voters that, when it comes to electoral politics, “deviation from the norm is the norm.”
On November 6, voters will head to the polls to elect local and state leaders, and their representatives to Congress. All eyes are on the House of Representatives, which many consider more representative of the American public than the Senate, and where a large number of seats are up for grabs. According to the New York Times, Democrats need to flip a minimum of 23 Republican-held spots to retake it. And if they do, they will be in a stronger position to place checks on the rest of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Ahead of this high-stakes midterm election comes a deliciously wonky new project called “Electing the House,” put together by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) and Virginia Tech’s history department, which visualizes 200 years of elections to the House.
“Congress is a coequal branch of government and can either amplify or undermine the executive branch’s ambitions,”said Virginia Tech history professor LaDale Winling. “Understanding [its past], geographically and electorally, can help historians and the public think about the contested and conflicted nature of governing in the United States. It can also help us look with a new lens at the American public.”
“Electing the House” makes the most robust and comprehensive dataset to-date of Congressional elections available in a user-friendly format, offering additional dimension of insight into the current political moment. It is the first part of a series, which may include visualizations of historical data on Senate elections in the future. The project features an interactive map, presenting each district color-coded based on the party that won in each Congressional election between 1840 and 2016. Toggling the option in the legend can isolate just the districts that have flipped one way or the other for each election year. (The first Congress was elected in 1788, but the researchers started with 1840 because that’s the year the data become sufficiently reliable.)
The interactive also allows users to view the data in the form of a cartogram, where each district is represented as a discrete bubble and the ones in populous metropolitan areas cluster together. This version gives a sense of the rural-urban divide in political representation over time. By clicking on a single district, the interactive allows users to explore its particular political trajectory. As a whole, the map supports the idea that “there is nothing natural or automatic about the democratic electoral process,” Winling said.
Trump’s victory in 2016 triggered an existential crisis for the American political experiment, and a host of explanations have been presented, including a flawed electoral college system, distortions in the role of the president, and extreme partisan divides stemming from deep-seated racism. But among the most durable themes to emerge has been the idea of “rural resentment.” As “Electing the House” shows, the rural-urban divide is nothing new. In the New Deal era, blue districts were concentrated in the South and outside some coastal cities in the northeast and West. Here’s a snapshot of the great Blue Wave of 1932, when Democrats picked up 97 seats in the House:
The map also allows users to trace the constantly changing geography of Congressional districts—through regular redistricting and partisan gerrymandering. Below are a series of maps showing the evolution of North Carolina’s 12th district—the most gerrymandered district in America, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. “It snakes from north of Greensboro, to Winston-Salem, and then all the way down to Charlotte, spanning most of the state in the process,” writes the Post’s Christopher Ingraham. It’s been drawn up this way by Republicans to squeeze their opponents’ supporters into one Congressional district. You can see it getting skinner and more irregular over time:
Winling also highlights Wisconsin’s 2nd district (in map below), which was competitive until 2000, when it was redrawn. Democrat Tammy Baldwin, first elected in 1998, has been winning with around 60 percent of the vote ever since.
The really fun thing about the map is that it allows users to dive down historical rabbit holes, and retrieve facts that help contextualize what we’re seeing in American politics today. Back in 1844, for example, the nativist “Know Nothing” party won seats in Philadelphia and New York on an anti-Irish campaign. Unlike the Trump-brand nativists today, the Know Nothings rallied ample support in cities that were key gateways for Irish immigrants escaping poverty and famine.
Or, the map helps highlight that electoral practices that seem like anomalies now were really quite common at one point: In 1840—two years before a law was passed mandating one elected representative to the House per district—a number of districts elected multiple candidates. General ticket elections, in which each resident votes for multiple seats, were occasionally held long after 1842 in states like Alabama, Hawaii, and New Hampshire.
“It makes it makes clear that the way we think about … the norms of American politics weren’t always the norms,” says Robert K. Nelson, director of the DSL. “There are exceptions to the way we organize our politics and some of the fundamental practices of American democracy and American voting.”
Exploring the tool has led the creators not only to learn new facts, but stories of real people—figures who may be mere footnotes in history textbooks, if they are featured at all. There’s Jeannette Rankin—the first woman elected to Congress in 1916 and prominent suffragette. She was elected at a time when there were two seats available from Montana, and getting around 20 percent of the vote qualified her for the second one. In 1918, after that district split into two, the rules changed, and she was not able to get reelected. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she said at the time. “But I won’t be the last.” Two years later, the 19th Amendment was ratified, and newly enfranchised (white, mostly suburban) women voters contributed to the bump the Republican Party received in Congress.
Stories like these—of trying and failing, but creating the possibility of a better, fairer system—are everywhere in this dataset. They reveal a central truth about democracy: It is an imperfect and constantly evolving exercise.
“What we can illustrate is that democracy must be contested and debated and ruled upon every two years—[in fact] every day,” Winling said. “This doesn’t happen on its own.”